Salad Dressing 101

I haven’t purchased bottled salad dressing in years–and we eat quite a bit of salad in our house! Years ago I learned that there is a simple formula for making delicious homemade salad dressing that is easy, versatile, and healthy (no nasty preservatives or artificial colors and flavorings). Once you master this easy formula, you’ll never buy bottled salad dressing again.

The Formula:  1 part acid to 3 parts oil, seasoned with salt and pepper.

The lemon juice will sink to the bottom and the oil will float on top. To blend, simply put on the lid and shake.

Yep, that’s really all there is to it.  “One part acid” means if you want to make one cup of dressing, use 1/4 cup of acid to 3/4 cup of oil.  Keep in mind that this is a just a guideline so feel free to adjust the proportions until you find a ratio that you like.  I like a slightly more acidic flavor so I usually reduce the amount of oil.  In this case, I used lemon juice and olive oil.  I added about a teaspoon of salt and a good coarse grind of black pepper.  Put on the lid and shake away!  You will find the mixture quickly emulsifies, meaning it holds together.  However once it sits for a few minutes, the oil will again separate from the acid.  To re-emulsify, just shake again.

No special container is needed.  I like to use a glass jar with a plastic lid but you can recycle any jar with a lid, or you can purchase a fancy container.  You don’t even have to strictly measure.  Once you know the approximate fill lines for your container, you can just eyeball the amounts.  I usually make enough to last for several meals, just be sure to keep it in the refrigerator.  It can be kept for several weeks refrigerated.

This basic vinaigrette can easily be upgraded.  I often add a tablespoon of dijon mustard and a tablespoon of honey to this basic recipe to create a flavorful all-purpose dressing.  Add 1/2 teaspoon of celery seed and a finely chopped shallot and you’ve really got something special.

You can swap out the lemon juice for other citrus juices like lime, orange, or a combination.  As for vinegars, you can use balsamic, champagne, red wine vinegar, apple cider, etc.  And if you didn’t know what to do with that gift bottle of fancy flavored vinegar (you know, the one with a sprig of dill, chili peppers or cloves of garlic floating around), now you do.  Put it to use in your own homemade salad dressing.  Did you know you can even use leftover pickle juice?  It’s packed with flavor!

There are so many wonderful products on the market these days that can be incorporated into your dressings.
I recently visited a local olive oil tasting room and purchased this can of basil flavored olive oil. It is great for bread dipping and is also delicious drizzled on a caprese salad.

As for oils, olive oil is probably the most popular.  Since the flavor of the oil is important, use a good quality extra virgin olive oil in your dressings. Other oils impart different flavor profiles so feel free to experiment.  Try grapeseed, avocado, canola, nut oils, or just about any other plant-based oil that is not solid at room temperature.  (Coconut oil, while solid at room temperature, could still work in a warm salad dressing.) Truffle oil has a very unique flavor and can be quite strong, so you’d need to reduce the amount you use significantly, no more than 1 tablespoon to one cup of dressing.  Make up the rest with a more neutral oil, like olive or canola.

A touch of sweetness is often nice in salads. You can always add a little sugar or stevia to your dressing, but a spoonful of agave or honey gives great flavor and adds body.  How about mixing up a dressing with olive oil, apple cider vinegar and a dollop of maple syrup for a fall salad?

There are endless variations on this basic formula that can take your salad dressings to new frontiers.  The addition of spices can transform the flavor of your dressings, as can a handful of chopped fresh herbs or a few cloves of roasted garlic (you’ll need to blend this in a food processor or blender to incorporate the garlic into the dressing).

Yes, it easy to buy a bottle of ready-made dressing off the grocery store shelf but the reasons to make your own are quite compelling–it’s easy, healthy, delicious, and the options are endless.

The “Wabi-Sabi” of Collecting

In our modern society we tend to throw away anything that is broken, damaged, or starting to show wear or age.  Our culture tells us we must replace our wardrobes annually (if not more frequently), and there is pressure to keep up with the latest trends–in our homes, cars, even food choices.  I won’t go into what this mindset does to our environment, but I will say that I think cultivating a more mindful approach to our possessions could be worthwhile.

The Japanese take a different approach.  Rather than throwing away items that become damaged, worn or are otherwise “imperfect,” they embrace and honor those items used in daily life.  They say these items have “wabi-sabi,” a word that encapsulates the meaning of that which is imperfect and impermanent but retains beauty and meaning.

This antique European dough bowl is one of my most prized possessions. It has been well-loved and used. When the ends started to crack apart, the owners lovingly placed a metal strap across the crack to hold it together and maintain it’s usefulness. I’d argue the strap and it’s rivets make the bowl even more beautiful.

The Japanese sometimes take wabi-sabi a step further by actually highlighting the imperfections in a piece.  Examples of this would be filling in a chip or crack in a piece of pottery with real gold or attaching a brass strap across a crack in a wooden bowl.  The piece’s usefulness is preserved and it is made more beautiful by the addition of a precious metal.

I spotted this unusual lemon growing on my tree and thought it was a good example of wabi sabi. It is abnormally shaped with it’s double lobe and “finger” growing off to the side. Perfectly edible and just as delicious as any “perfect” lemon on the tree!

Nature is filled with examples of wabi-sabi.  Trees do not grow perfectly straight, fruits do not always form into the perfect shapes we have come to expect, and even animals are sometimes born with crooked tails or collapsed ears.  We are examples of wabi-sabi too.  Our freckles, crooked smiles, and wrinkles can be viewed as imperfections but they also make us unique. Wabi-sabi teaches us that with age, we acquire a heightened beauty which is seen in the lines of a face that has lived a long full life.

Another important aspect of wabi-sabi is impermanence.  In 1912 the Japanese donated 3,000 cherry trees to Washington, DC as a symbol of lasting friendship.  Having lived in the Washington, DC area much of my life, I have had the opportunity to see our nation’s cherry trees in bloom many times.  However it can be difficult to time your visit when they are at peak beauty.  If the weather is a little too cold, they won’t open; a little too warm and they open too soon and can be killed by frost.  Too much wind and they can disappear in a day.  In all cases, the flowers eventually fall off the tree and die.  However we know that next year the blossoms will return and we will have another chance to experience their fleeting beauty.

I love to apply the concept of wabi-sabi to collecting.  A bowl that has been well-loved and used for many years, even with a chip or crazing, has a sort of soulful beauty with which a new piece can never compete. The patina, or “dirt” on an old wooden table has a depth of coloration and richness that Pottery Barn just can’t duplicate!  Furthermore, the quality of new or mass produced pieces is often inferior to older pieces.  I often think that something that has held up for 100 years is likely to continue to hold up for a few more.

See the dark areas of mottling in this ironstone pitcher? The pitcher remains perfectly useful and is made even more lovely by the character that wear and tear have imparted to it.  ( The white putty at the base of the pitcher is earthquake putty–a necessary precaution here in California!)
This little Japanese transferware bowl has a chip, numerous dark spots and areas where the transfer pattern bled onto the white areas before being fired (see the blue spots on the lower white portion of the bowl). Thankfully it was not discarded and I was lucky enough to acquire it for my collection of Blue Willow. If you look closely, you can also see that the Victorian linen hand towel under the bowl has a small hole at the upper right hand edge. That’s another example of wabi-sabi.

One of the reasons I enjoy going to estate sales, auctions and thrift stores is that I often find items that I collect–ironstone, majolica, antique linens, blue and white china–that have imperfections.  I love the idea that I may be saving theses treasures from being tossed in the trash.  Knowing that a delicate piece of china has been around for 100 years or longer and that I might preserve it for a few more years is meaningful to me. And as an additional bonus, these pieces can usually be had for minimal cost.

The little ironstone pitcher on the left is badly crazed and discolored. I know of a method to bleach out the discoloration but I prefer to leave it as is. Mixed in with the other pieces in my ironstone pitcher collection, it adds texture and personality.
Notice that this bowl does not sit evenly on the table? It is handmade, rough-hewn and uneven. It’s enormous scale tells me that a very large family must have once cherished this bowl.  It likely held their daily bread.

Collecting items with wabi-sabi gives us the opportunity to preserve them for a while, however an important part of wabi-sabi is understanding that none of these pieces will last forever.  They can break, or burn, or decay.  Eventually everything has an expiration date–including us.  Melody Daggerhart, a writer who lived in Japan for many years, puts it best:

“These “treasures” have personality and character because of what they have suffered, rather than because they have avoided trauma. Each item has been forged into something unique and special with its own story because it lived, and life is hard. So, you appreciate everything that it has been through and the fact that it’s still here. And lastly, these items have transcended their original design and purpose and owners, etc. They are more than a pitcher, a bowl, a cup. They are meaningful beyond their physical forms. And the fact that you value them for being what they are only adds to their beauty.”

Remember, a collection is simply “more than two” of something.  Whether you have an interest in pottery, tea cups, vintage clothing or stamps, I encourage you to have an open mind to the beauty of wabi-sabi.  If you are willing to look past an article’s imperfections, you will open yourself up to finding treasures all along life’s journey.  And this is true not only for material possessions, but for people too.

Two benches along a pathway within West Potomac Park in Washington D.C. during the National Cherry Blossom Festival and Bloom, 2015.

 

 

 

Spring Wreath

As soon as the Christmas decorations come down, I find my eye craves a fresher palette.  It is such a treat to walk into the stores in January and see all the pretty spring pastel colors on display.  My mind turns to spring and I can’t wait to begin planning my home decor for the upcoming season.

I was in a local craft store last week and spotted this stunning wreath for $60.  I’ve seen similar wreaths for a whole lot more in high-end shops.

I checked out the construction and quickly realized that a knock-off version would be easy and could be accomplished for less–a whole lot less!  In fact, I was able to recreate this wreath for less than $10.

Here’s how I did it.  I was lucky to find a slightly smaller styrofoam wreath form at a thrift store for $1.  The craft store sells the larger ones for around $6 so if you have to purchase one, your total cost will still be well below the cost of buying the wreath ready made.

I then headed to my favorite local 99¢ store.  I purchased 8 bunches of silk flowers in spring colors.  I was careful to look for an assortment of shapes and sizes and I steered clear of anything that looked overtly fake or colors that seemed unnatural.  (In other words, the bright blue roses didn’t make the cut!)

Leave a stem of about 1½ inches at the base of each flower.

You will need a wire cutter tool to make this job easy.  Before you begin cutting, slide any leaves upward to the base of the flower.  Start clipping the flower stems apart, leaving a stem of about 1½ inches on each flower for insertion into the styrofoam base.  I wanted my wreath to look similar the one at the craft store where the flowers were bunched by variety and color, so  I decided to follow the same approach.

Start pushing the stems into your form.  They should stay in on their own, but if you find they do not, you can always put a dab of hot glue on the end before inserting and that should keep them in place.

Place the stems close enough to one another so as to avoid the form showing through.  Some of my flowers were fairly large and I found they did not need to be very close to cover the form well.  I added sprigs of yellow around the perimeter of my form to give it a feathery look.

I did have to do a little rearranging once the stems were in place to get the spacing even and to get the colors balanced, but still the entire project took only about 30 minutes.  While it didn’t turn out exactly like the wreath in the craft store, I’m pleased with it and feel I got a similar look at a much lower cost.

I added a ribbon for hanging and experimented with different places inside and outside the house to hang it.

It’s a cheerful spring welcome on the front door.

 

Hanging on a mirror, the wreath enlivens a pass-through hallway.
It introduces color and life in the dining room hanging on the front of the china cabinet.

This is a quick, easy and inexpensive project that will provide seasonal beauty to your home.   Keep in mind that you can customize the wreath by selecting colors and flowers that best fit your decor.  I urge you to give it a try!

 

 

Burger Inspiration

We recently returned from a mini-vacation in the wine country of Paso Robles, CA.  In addition to tasting many wonderful wines, we also enjoyed several memorable meals.  Paso has plenty of well-known dining options but were were in search of someplace that wasn’t on the typical tourist trail. The manager at our hotel turned out to be a great resource, not only for directing us to wineries that excelled at the lush, fruit-forward red wines we most enjoy drinking, but also for restaurants.  Her top suggestion for lunch was The Cass Café at Cass Winery.

The Cass Café doesn’t look like much upon entry.  In fact, it is open to the tasting room of the winery and consists of some small round tables and metal chairs on a raw concrete floor.  Our server (who simultaneously conducted wine tastings between visits to wait on us) brought us a menu and made a few recommendations.  After our server told us that the Benny Burger had “changed her life,” I read the description and decided to order it.

1/3 lb of estate-raised, grass fed beef. Topped with house-cured bacon, Hook’s Paradise bleu cheese, horseradish aioli, pickled onions, and organic arugula, served on a local seeded brioche bun. Prepared medium.  Served with your choice of side salad or garlic parmesan potato chips with a garden basil aioli dip.

I enjoyed seeing the chef’s garden outside the winery. In the dead of winter there were only a few items growing, but seeing space set aside for a garden always tells me the value the chef places on fresh ingredients and flavor.

It was the right decision. This was no ordinary burger.  My first bite revealed a nice crusty char on the outside, juicy and pink in the middle.  The brioche bun gave it a nice sweetness, while the horseradish aioli and pickled onions provided just the right kick. The bleu cheese was creamy and the bacon gave it a hint of salty smokiness.  The arugula added the perfect freshness.  The potato chips were house made (of course) and were surprisingly delicious.  Topped with a generous sprinkle of parmesan, they would have been exquisite on their own, but when dunked in the cool, rich basil aioli dip, they were taken to another level!

This delicious meal got my creative juices flowing and I pondered how I could recreate it in a more sophisticated way.  Instead of hamburger, how about filet mignon?  What if I wrapped the filet in bacon and topped it with a bleu cheese-horseradish sauce? To upgrade the chips, I envisioned a flavorful and decadent mashed potato which incorporated parmesan and basil.   An arugula side salad would complete the meal.

I purchased two filet mignon steaks and wrapped a piece of applewood smoked bacon around each, securing the bacon with toothpicks.  I seasoned them well with coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper and placed the steaks on a hot grill in hopes of getting a similar crust and char to the burger.

After the steaks had achieved some nice grill marks, I put them in a 375 degree oven for about 10 minutes to finish cooking.  (We prefer our steaks medium well, but you can adjust the time according to how you done you want yours.)

While the steaks were cooking, I prepared the bleu cheese horseradish sauce. I found a recipe online that seemed to have all the ingredients of the sauce on the burger.  Here is a link: http://www.food.com/recipe/blue-cheese-horseradish-hamburger-sauce-92443

I began the mashed potatoes by roasting a small head of garlic drizzled with olive oil in the oven at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes.  The roasted garlic takes on a sweetness without the strong taste of raw garlic.  You can use all of the roasted garlic or just a little.  I used 4 cloves for this recipe and will  blend the rest into a salad dressing for later.

The mashed potatoes were prepared by peeling and cutting into 1″ cubes four large potatoes.  Place in a pot with enough water to cover and boil until fork tender. Drain the potatoes, and use a hand mixer to break up them up.  Once most of the lumps are out, add in the roasted garlic and slowly begin adding the ½ cup of half and half.  Then add ½ cup of sour cream.  Finish with 1/4 cup of parmesan cheese, a tablespoon of chopped fresh basil, salt and pepper to taste.  (Be careful not to overbeat the potatoes or they will become gummy.)

The meal was complete with a simple arugula salad dressed with a basic vinaigrette of 1 part lemon juice to 2 parts olive oil, salt and pepper to taste.  A nice glass of Paso Robles cabernet sauvignon was the perfect compliment.

Here are the results.  The flavors were very similar to the delicious burger we enjoyed in Paso.  Wouldn’t this make a nice romantic dinner for two, perhaps for Valentines’ Day?

Preserving Fresh Herbs

Did you ever have a basil harvest that was a little too abundant?  Or have to buy way more cilantro than you needed when the recipe called for only a tablespoon?  While there is nothing like the tremendous flavor boost most dishes get from fresh herbs, they can be expensive and tend to go bad before they get used up.  If, like me, you have tossed out too many slimy bags of wilted herbs, here is a tip for you.

Next time you have more fresh herbs than you can use at one time, try freezing them in olive oil.

Take the leaves off the stems and put them in a food processor or blender.  Give them a good spin and then slowly start adding olive oil.  As soon as the oil is incorporated, stop blending and spoon them into an ice cube tray.  Top off each section with more olive oil until they are covered (this helps the herbs to stay green).  Pop them into the freezer for a couple of hours and when they have hardened, place the cubes into a sealable plastic bag.

You now have all the goodness and flavor of fresh herbs anytime you want it.  Toss a cube into a pot of soup or sauce.  Or defrost a couple and use as a pizza topping. Blend into a smoothie or add to an omelet.  Each cube equals about one tablespoon of minced fresh herbs. You can pretty much use them just as you would fresh herbs.

I’ve shown basil here but this tip works equally well with parsley, cilantro, mint, oregano and most other herbs.  Preserving fresh herbs is not only economical and easy,  I think you’ll also find that the flavor is amazing!

A Simple Ironstone Bowl

I collect antique and vintage ironstone.  I love its simplicity, versatility and its usefulness.  Whenever I visit flea markets, yard sales, thrift stores or travel, I always keep an eye out for it.  I used to see it frequently but now it’s a rare treat to find a piece.

On my recent visit to Paso Robles, I stopped in an antique mall downtown and found this lovely bowl.

I didn’t have a bowl like this in my collection and knew immediately it would be useful in a variety of applications.

My lemon tree is loaded with ripe lemons.

 

My camillias are in bloom.

 

I have a pile of Christmas cards that need a place to call home.

 

And tonight’s dinner calls for a simple green salad.

It will also be a great addition to my ironstone collection.

 

Days of Christmas Past

Our house has a rather prominent fireplace in the living room and I wanted something that would make a statement over the mantle for Christmas. After we moved in, I discovered that the previous owners had left two original window screens in the garage. They were painted a not-so-lovely salmony-pink color, and were very dirty with peeling paint when I found them. I immediately envisioned them repainted, holding small evergreen wreaths with red bows over my fireplace at Christmas!

I have been following Miss Mustard Seed’s blog for a while now and had always wanted to try out her milk paint line.  I thought this little project would be ideal to test it out.  I purchased a sample size of her product in “Shutter Gray.”  This color is a dusty blue-gray that is similar to the current exterior trim color on our house and I thought it would tie in nicely.

After wiping the grime off the shutters and giving them a light sanding, I was ready to paint. The paint was easy to mix and even though it seemed like it might not be enough to cover the small area of the screen frames, I was able to put three coats on one side for full coverage.

After the paint fully dried (I waited 20 minutes between coats and about an hour after the final coat), I then did a very, very light sanding to knock off any bumps or rough spots. With a damp rag, I applied a light coat antiquing solution to tone down the color. Continuously working the glaze while it is still damp is key to getting just the right amount of coverage. I wanted a rustic and uneven look so I removed more in some places and left more on in other places.

The screens even had the original hooks which were just perfect for attaching my ribbons and wreaths.

Trader Joe’s had the perfect size natural evergreen wreaths for only $6! I purchased two and looped a pretty red ribbon through, tying a bow and positioning it at the top of the wreaths. I hung the loop over the hook and voila!

Here’s how they look over my fireplace. I believe this may be my annual “signature” piece for the living room at Christmas. But don’t be surprised if you see them again soon. I am also envisioning other seasonal adornments on the screens, e.g., little hanging vases of yellow daffodils to welcome spring, a garland of fall leaves in autumn, wreaths of succulents, etc.